Drop that compact disc, music thief

by Mathew on December 29, 2007 · 22 comments

If you’re like me, you’ve ripped hundreds — perhaps even thousands — of compact discs, and copied the music files to your hard drive so that you can play them on your computer, or on a portable music player. You may even have done so on the advice of Apple, whose slogan “Rip, Mix, Burn” helped to launch iTunes. In any case, you and I are both common thieves, according to the latest gambit from the record industry.

As a recent story in the Washington Post notes, the RIAA has filed documents accusing an Arizona man of copyright infringement for simply having 2,000 songs on his computer — even if those songs weren’t downloaded from peer-to-peer networks, but were copied from CDs that he legally purchased. According to the record industry’s lobby group, making a copy of a CD is theft, plain and simple.

This isn’t the first time the industry has tried to make this argument. Earlier this month, one of the RIAA lawyers in the case said that “when an individual makes a copy of a song for himself, I suppose we can say he stole a song.” And in the regular triennial review of the DMCA last year, the industry argued before Congress that making even one copy for personal use is copyright infringement.

As several people have pointed out, this is a reversal of the testimony that the record labels themselves put before the Supreme Court in the case against the Grokster file-sharing network. At that time, a representative of the industry told the court that “It’s perfectly lawful to take a CD that you’ve purchased, upload it onto your computer, [and] put it onto your iPod.” Now, that same activity is apparently theft.

Scott Karp of Publishing 2.0 says that the record industry could be the first industry to actually be destroyed by digital technology, and he’s not the only one. Music insider Bob Lefsetz has made similar comments — and at times like these, the impending doom of the RIAA and the traditional label structure seems almost inevitable. I have a feeling that this view of the industry is not at all uncommon.

Note: The meaning of the RIAA’s comments in the current case is unclear (see Shelley’s comments below). As this post describes, the wording in the record industry’s brief appears to have been changed to refer to files that appear in a shared folder. But it’s clear from other comments, as I note in this post, that the RIAA believes simply copying a CD is infringement — although it may not be prepared to argue that in this particular case.

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